Luanda, Angola – In what is being billed as a rare moment of national unity, the historic leader of Angola’s rebel UNITA movement, Jonas Savimbi, will get a public funeral on Saturday, 17 years after he was killed in a shootout with government soldiers that spelt an end to a long civil war.
“For 17 years, we have waited,” said Isaias Samakuva, today’s leader of the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA), which has been transformed from a US-backed armed force into the main opposition political party.
UNITA’s official spokesman Alcides Sakala Simoes declared the funeral would be “an important moment… in the building of national reconciliation”.
The former Portuguese colony became a Cold War battleground after independence in 1975, once the Marxist-Leninist People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) seized control.
The United States lined up behind Savimbi’s UNITA and the Soviet Union and its allies backed the MPLA. Cuba deployed a large military force to counter troops from South Africa and Zaire.
At least half a million people died in the conflict for the vast, oil-rich southern African nation, which played out over more than a quarter of a century.
Early in 2002, a contingent of soldiers pursued the 67-year-old Savimbi across the vast province of Moxico in central eastern Angola.
On February 22, his pursuers caught up with him. He fought back but, riddled with more than a dozen bullets, soon died.
His body was rushed to the provincial capital Luena and buried in the main cemetery, with a cross of iron on the mound of red soil and the name “SAVIMBI Jonas” etched into the trunk of an acacia tree.
Many Angolans were reluctant to believe that the charismatic and controversial “Black Cockerel” was truly dead after many fake reports, but televised photos were compelling.
Rival sides swiftly moved towards a ceasefire in a conflict that had lasted 27 years.
This year, after long talks, the government agreed with UNITA and the Savimbi family to hold a funeral this Saturday in the village of Lopitanga, central Angola, where Savimbi’s father is buried.
DNA tests confirmed the identity of the remains, dispelling rumours that the body had been swapped or destroyed.
The deal was unlocked after President Jose Eduardo dos Santos, Savimbi’s sworn enemy, stepped down in 2017 and was replaced by his defence minister, Joao Lourenco – a succession that led to a mood of change.
Alleluia Savimbi, one of Savimbi’s 30 children, notably saluted Lourenco’s “political gesture” in allowing the funeral to go ahead.
“This is a further step towards reconciliation and was overdue,” Alex Vines of the London-based think tank Chatham House told AFP.
“For all his faults, Jonas Savimbi was supported by a significant part of the Angolan population and his party UNITA is still a significant political force in Angola today.
“Seventeen years on – it was time further to heal the scars of past conflict and under a new head of state, Joao Lourenco, allowing this to happen is easier.”
But the harmony has been ruffled by confusion over the handover of his remains to the family, which was scheduled for Tuesday.
The government said the family and UNITA delegation did not show up as arranged in Luena. But the family delegation was waiting in Kuito, around 400 kilometres, where they said the handover had been set.
UNITA accused the government of “trying to humiliate” it while the government hit back, warning UNITA against making “political use of the situation”.
The dispute reflects how Savimbi, the son of a preacher, remains a contested figure all these years later.
Typically dressed in a green combat uniform, with a walking stick in his hand and a revolver on his hip, he led an army of more than 30,000 troops.
Backed for many years by apartheid South Africa, his force were accused of atrocities and he himself was described as having carried out summary executions and the public burning of women who had refused his sexual advances.
“This was a very intelligent, very charismatic man,” said Fred Bridgland, a former British journalist who met Savimbi and wrote a biography of him.
“He had a paranoid murder instinct quite early on, on a small scale. But as time went on, and he murdered one person after another, he had to start murdering on a huge scale.
“Many of the leaders of UNITA in Luanda regard him as a hero, but there are equally as many people who lost their relatives who hate the man. There will be a lot of very very angry people.”